In November the snails come. After the first big rain of the season, I see snails hanging on the handrail outside my apartment building. I see them stuck to the rocks that frame the tide pools, out past the breakwater at Cabrillo Beach. They cling in vertical clumps to trees, cars, the stalks of wild sunflowers. In the mornings I pull them off my bedroom window one by one. The sill is slick with their slime. I lean in for a closer look: the sun catches the glossy streaks of mucus. I snap a picture, mucus on my mind. I’m reading Slug and Other Stories (Feminist Press), the revised and expanded edition of Megan Milks’ cult 2014 fiction collection Kill Marguerite. Composed of fourteen speculative tales, Slug is a surreal and slime-filled exploration of how desire and intimacy forms and transforms us and our worlds.
Consider Patty, the protagonist of the title story. After a boring date, she comes home and daydreams about sado-masochistic sex in bed. As she loses herself in ever more extreme fantasies, she metamorphoses into a slug after having sex with one. Wet all over, her desire oozes out of her.
Slugs, like snails, produce different kinds of slime, which act as both glue and lubricant, allowing them to stick to, or slide over, various surfaces. Their mucus protects them and holds them in place, sealing off their delicate membranes from harsh environs. Their goo keeps them tethered to the world. The same is true of Slug’s characters. Mucus, spit, and slime prevents them from drying up emotionally while also helping them glide across hostile terrains.
We encounter one such hostile terrain in the story, “My Father and I Were Bent Groundward,” in the form of a home with a homophobic dad. A tale as old as time: “My Father” riffs on the genre of the Greek myth. When Hephaestus strikes a father and his adult child in the ass with his almighty sword, the god impregnates both. Although the father and the child now share this transfigurative experience, they remain walled off from each other. The father is humiliated by the knowledge that his immortal child was born with the sword of another man. His fixed, heteronormative beliefs isolate him, turning his body into a vessel of abjection. In Slug’s universe, bodies exist as sites of horror as much as pleasure.
Written in the tradition of the grotesque, the bodies in these stories rarely behave as expected. They’re unruly, excessive, and leaky. Fluids and feelings flow. In “Dionysus“ the title character and her lover must navigate their newfound love and Dionysus’ eternal romance with Southern Comfort. “When she [Dionysus] swirled around bars and streets, she forgot about me. It hurt,” the narrator tells us. For Dionysus, all love is wet: booze, sloppy kisses, watery red eyes, her puke which her lover catches in the bowl of her shirt.
The inherent messiness of intimacy is a central theme in all Slug’s stories. In “Tomato Heart,” a pair of foodies fall in love over red sauce and caprese salads. When one lover starts growing a tomato from the place where their heart once lived, they discover their affection for their partner is dying. As if the loss of love isn’t horrifying enough, they must eat their own red tomato heart to make room for a new love to bloom.
Despite their otherworldly nature, the bodies in Slug remain corporal: fleshy, wet, and wiggly. Milks’ never makes use of bodies as mere tools for transcendence or enlightenment. Fans of Dodie Bellamy and Arielle Greenberg will appreciate Slug‘s commitment to corporality, excess, play, and porn. Many of Slug‘s stories use pornographic tropes. Milks pushes erotic clichés to their extreme, smearing the boundary between sexy and gross. They create a sexual language that goes beyond sex morphing into desire itself. A yearning freed from the limitation of the body or fixed identities.
If desire can alter who we are and how we embody the world, it can also render us unrecognizable to ourselves and others. Enter the horror. Milks understands that radical change often scares us. In “The Strands” a woman named Tegan struggles to find herself again after a breakup with Sarah. Milks writes in the story, “Unlike celebrity Tegan and unlike this Sarah, this Tegan maybe was trans, though she had been trying hard not to be, didn’t want to be, yet. Tegan wanted to stay Tegan. But who was Tegan?”
Throughout Slug identity, like desire, is slippery. In “Kill Marguerite” the arrival of a new girl in town forever alters the dynamic between the adolescent protagonist Caty and her BFF Kim. This change forces Caty to take drastic measures to restore her equilibrium. This story, like several others in the collection, brilliantly captures both the high drama of adolescent friendships and the desperate things we do to avoid change.
Slug’s stories reveal intimacy’s power to both confine and change us. In “Ed and Earl“ a romantic fling between a fly and orchid gives way to codependency and resentment. “Together they became something else, not Earl and not Ed but Earl&Ed, wherein they ceased entirely to be Earl or Ed separately,” writes Milks in the story’s opening paragraphs. Their love changes them. So too does their painful cleaving. Transformation is inevitable, says Milks. Slug’s emphasis on transformation and becoming reflects its broader teen epistemology. Milks rewrites the narrative of the adolescent, not only by using forms associated with young adult literature (like choose-your-own adventures), but also by extending the adolescent state of becoming to the whole of one’s life.
To capture our ever-evolving selves, we need new approaches to narrative. Slug’s formal experimentalism is rooted in this call to action. Its structure informs its content. The book plays with an impressive range of forms, including video games, myth, magazine columns, memoir, and more, all unified by Milks’ straightforward prose style. Part of the fun of reading Slug is tracking its many changes in form. Stories shape-shift from porn to memoir to critical essays within the span of a few pages. Each piece promises surprise. Milks’ skill at subverting narrative conventions and expectations makes Slug an entertaining and compulsive read. In traditional narratives, the main character’s transformation, or arc, comprises the central climax and signals the story’s conclusion, giving readers a sense of finality. Slug’s stories offer no soothing resolutions. At the heart of each story lies an essential truth: we’re always-already transforming. The thrill of being alive is noticing the subtle shifts.
Although Milks wrote many of Slug’s pieces over a decade ago, they feel especially timely. One of the most intriguing pieces in the collection, Patrick Gets Inspired, details Milks’ struggle to write Covid-inspired porn before morphing into a meditation about art-making and desire in the end times. Like the ongoing pandemic, Milks’ stories expose our inherent interconnectedness. We’re bound by the air we share, the droplets we breathe, the sticky slime of our feelings. Slug invites us to stay curious about the many ways intimacy, or lack thereof, forms and undoes us, again and again. The collection establishes Milks not only as a virtuoso of experimental prose but as one of the most exciting voices in fiction today.